- Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged with 52 counts related to pulling over drivers, planting drugs like meth on them, and arresting them.
- Nearly 120 cases involving Wester have been dropped, and more are being reviewed.
- While some victims are pleased with the charges, many others who served time or received probation because of his actions feel that the damage is already done.
- In one case, a victim lost custody of a child, and in another, a victim was forced to serve a year in rehab.
Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged Wednesday for pulling over drivers for minor traffic infractions, planting drugs on them, and then booking them for possession.
According to a statement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Wester was arrested on “felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment.”
This morning, FDLE arrested former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy Zachary Wester on a litany of charges, including racketeering, fabricating evidence, and false imprisonment. #arresthttps://t.co/9McYv4FT6G pic.twitter.com/fkO1oRcJCs— FDLE (@fdlepio) July 10, 2019
He was also charged with “misdemeanor perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia,” the statement said. Together, Wester faces a total of 52 separate charges.
It is unclear how much prison time he could get. The Washington Post reported that State Attorney William Eddins, who oversaw the case, told reporters Wester could face up to 30 years.
The Tallahassee Democrat said that the racketeering charge alone has a max penalty of 30 years, and the other felonies have max sentences of five years.
However, they also reported Eddins saying that under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, Wester would only face 13 and a half years if found guilty on all charges, noting that a judge could give him more.
While Wester was only arrested on Wednesday, the charges against him came as part of a nearly year-long investigation.
Wester was reportedly hired by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. In August 2018, the Sheriff’s Office asked the FDLE to launch an internal investigation into his conduct after a prosecutor found inconsistencies between his reports and what was captured on his body camera.
Specifically, prosecutors said he turned his body camera off most of the time, and only turned it back on after he had already found the drugs in the vehicles he was searching.
Additionally, in most cases, Wester would pull someone over for a minor traffic infraction and then ask them if he smelled marijuana, which would give him probable cause to search their car.
Despite the fact that Wester would write in his reports that he smelled or thought he saw marijuana, he would usually turn his camera back on to show he found meth.
Even in cases where the people he pulled over actually were suspected of crimes or admitted to having marijuana in the car, Wester still planted the meth, according to the affidavit.
As a result of the investigation, Wester was suspended on Aug. 1 and then fired a month later. Prosecutors said they would not file charges until the FDLE investigation was complete.
The investigation took a while because there was a lot of evidence to review. According to the FDLE statement, during the investigation, their agents, “analyzed over 1,300 minutes of recorded video and logged over 1,400 working hours on the case.”
In that footage, the investigators found one of the few instances where he kept his body camera on during a search.
In that incident, Wester had pulled over a woman named Teresa Odom, claiming her brake lights were not working properly.
In the bodycam footage, Wester is seen holding something that looks like a small plastic bag in his hand. He then puts his hand out of view under the driver’s seat and returns it without the baggy.
Wester later booked Odom for possessing meth.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, deputies who searched Wester’s patrol car during the investigation found “42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, ten baggies of methamphetamine and five baggies of marijuana concealed in an unmarked and unsecured evidence bag in the trunk.”
The Tallahassee Democrat also reported that prosecutors reviewed nearly 300 cases that involved Wester, and dropped the charges in nearly 120 cases, including Odom’s.
However, Eddins said that there was no evidence that Wester planted drugs or fabricated arrests in all of the cases, and noted that the charges are based on his arrests of 11 known victims named in an affidavit, though there might be more.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” he told reporters Wednesday. “There’s a substantial amount of work to be done. But I have no belief that there’s anywhere near 100 victims. We may have identified most of the victims, we may (have) not.”
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Chris Williams, the FDLE Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the case said in a statement.
Though many cases have now been dismissed, for a lot of people, it is too little too late.
In 2017, a man named Benjamin Bowling lost custody of his daughter after he was convicted on felony charges for possessing meth that Wester said he found in his car.
At the time, Bowling had been released from prison a few months earlier and was being drug tested. Bowling also reportedly requested that the Sheriff’s Office turn over the bodycam footage and test the drugs for DNA and fingerprints, but they never did.
The same year, a man named Jeffrey Helms and his girlfriend April Middleton were also pulled over by Wester and arrested for possessing meth.
Middleton reportedly was in jail for a few weeks before being released, but Helms, who had prior charges, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Unfortunately, that is not even where the damage Wester did to the Helms family stops. Jeffrey Helms’ sister-in-law Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat in September that her own brother was also arrested by Wester for possessing meth.
Although his charges were dropped after Wester’s arrest, it was not done until after he was forced to spend a year in residential rehab.
“He’s ruined lives,” Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat. “People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages — all because of this one man. It’s not just innocent men. It’s innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realizes.”
See what others are saying: (The Tallahassee Democrat) (The Washington Post) (Fox News)
After Uvalde, Politicians, Public Figures, Gun Violence Survivors, and More Call For Change
“When are we going to do something?” Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr asked during an emotional plea at a press conference.
Uvalde Shooting Kills 21 People
Democratic politicians, activists, and many others are calling for gun reform in the United States after 19 children and two teachers were killed in a Tuesday shooting at Robb Hill Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
The 18-year-old suspected gunman was reportedly killed by officers. The massacre marks the 27th school shooting of 2022, according to Education Week.
It also comes just a week and a half after 10 people were killed in a shooting in Buffalo, New York, and another shooting in a Southern California church left one person dead and several others injured.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) spoke fervently on the Senate floor Tuesday, slamming his colleagues for refusing to pass gun control legislation that could prevent future shootings.
“What are we doing?” he asked of his fellow lawmakers. “Why do you spend all this time running for the United States Senate? Why do you through all the hassle of getting this job, of putting yourself in a position of authority, if your answer is, as the slaughter increases, as kids run for their lives, we do nothing? What are we doing?
“Why are you here if not to solve a problem as existential as this?” he continued. “This isn’t inevitable. These kids weren’t unlucky. This only happens in this country.”
“And it is a choice. It is our choice.”
President Joe Biden likewise urged action by supporting the now-expired assault weapons ban.
“We can do more. We must do more,” he added.
Public Figures And Shooting Survivors Speak Out
The demands for change spread far past political figures. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr took time out of a pre-game press conference to passionately plead for common-sense gun control. He specifically called on Senators to vote on H.R. 8, a background check bill previously passed in the House.
“When are we going to do something?” Kerr asked while slamming his hands on the table.
“I ask you, Mitch McConnell, I ask all of you senators who refuse to do anything about the violence and school shootings and supermarket shootings. I ask you: Are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children and our elderly and our churchgoers?” Kerr continued. “Because that’s what it looks like.”
He went on to say that Americans, who largely support background checks, are “being held hostage by 50 Senators who refuse to even put it to a vote.”
Grammy Award-winning musician Taylor Swift shared his message, adding that she is filled with “rage and grief” not just from the shootings, but by “the ways in which we, as a nation, have become conditioned to unfathomable and unbearable heartbreak.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” tweeted David Hogg, an activist and survivor of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “The way we will make this time different is by Americans on both sides of the aisle collaborating on what we can agree on to get something done even if small. Kids are dying we have to do something.”
Manuel Oliver, the father of one of the children lost in the Parkland shooting, slammed the inaction of politicians in an interview on CBS News.
“The families don’t need your freaking hearts,” Oliver said. “They need their kids, and the kids are not there anymore. So I feel very angry and offended and I just don’t understand how come a whole society doesn’t wake up.”
People impacted by the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting also spoke out, including Mary Ann Jacob, who worked as a librarian at the school during the shooting.
“I’m so sorry those deaths did not change our world,” Jacob wrote.
Texas-based figures felt especially compelled to stand up as the tragedy hit so close to home. Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, whose hometown is Uvalde, wrote a message on social media asking Americans to “take a longer and deeper look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘What is it that we truly value?’”
“We have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us,” McConaughey wrote.
“Action must be taken so that no parent has to experience what the parents in Uvalde and the others before them have endured.”
Fellow Texas native Selena Gomez also took to social media to argue for action.
“If children aren’t safe at school where are they safe? It’s so frustrating and I’m not sure what to say anymore,” the “Only Murders in the Building” star wrote on her Instagram story. “Those in power need to stop giving lip service and actually change the laws to prevent these shootings in the future.”
We make it a point to not include the names and pictures of those who may have been seeking attention or infamy and will not link out to websites that might contain such information.
Lawmakers Call For Action as Oil Companies Post Record Profits Amid Rising Gas Prices
A recent analysis from the Center for American Progress found that the top five oil companies earned over 300% more in profits during the first quarter of 2022 than the same period last year.
As Consumer Prices Climb, Big Oil Profits
American oil companies are facing increased scrutiny over profiteering practices as gas prices continue to surpass record highs driven by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
Last week, costs surged to above $4 per gallon in all 50 states for the first time ever, according to the auto club AAA. Prices are currently averaging over $4.59 per gallon nationwide, which is 50% higher than they were this time last year.
In addition to consumers hurting at the pump, there are also rising concerns for industries that rely on fuel and oil like trucking, freight, airlines, and plastic manufacturers.
To account for high prices, some in sectors have responded by ramping up prices further down the supply chain to account for costs, putting even more of a burden on consumers to pay for everyday items.
But as Americans struggle with sky-high gas prices at a time of record inflation, recently released earnings reports show that many of the world’s largest oil companies thrived in the first quarter of 2022.
ExxonMobil more than doubled its earnings from the same period last year, reporting a net profit of $5.5 billion. Meanwhile, Chevron logged its best quarterly earnings in almost a decade, and Shell had its highest earnings ever.
According to a new analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress, the top five oil companies — including the three mentioned above — earned over 300% more in profits this quarter than during the same time last year.
“In fact, these five companies’ first-quarter profits alone are equivalent to almost 28 percent of what Americans spent to fill up their gas tanks in the same time period,” the report noted.
Per Insider, for at least four of those companies, that growth marks a tremendous increase in profits from even before the pandemic.
Lawmakers Ramp-Up Efforts to Reduce Prices
To address these startling disparities, federal lawmakers have moved in recent weeks to increase pressure on oil companies and take steps to lower prices.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill proposed by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Ca.) that aims to reduce gas prices. The legislation, called The Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act, would give the president the authority to issue an Energy Emergency Declaration that would be effective for up to 30 days with the possibility of being renewed.
In that emergency period, it would be illegal for anyone to increase gas or home energy fuel prices to a level that is exploitative or “unconscionably excessive.”
The proposal would also give the Federal Trade Commission the power to investigate and manage instances of price gouging from larger companies and give state authorities the ability to enforce price-gouging violations in civil courts.
The bill, which has already seen widespread opposition from Republicans and extensive lobbying from pro-oil interest groups, faces an uphill battle in the 50-50 split Senate.
During debate on the act Thursday, Rep. Porter delivered an impassioned speech accusing oil companies of driving their record profits by using their market power to unfairly increase prices.
“The oil and gas industry currently has more than 9,000 permits to drill for oil on federal land, but they are deliberately keeping production low to please their investors and increase their short-term profits,” she said. “Even when the price of crude oil falls, oil and gas companies have refused to pass those savings on to consumers.”
“Let me be clear: price gouging is anti-capitalist,” Porter continued. “It exploits a lack of competition, which is a hallmark of capitalism. It is an effort to juice corporate profits at the expense of customers. Energy markets are reeling because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Big oil companies, however, are using this temporary chaos to cover up their abuse.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Vox) (NPR)
Lincoln College to Close for Good After COVID and Ransomware Attack Ruin Finances
Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.
One of the Only Historically Black Colleges in the Midwest Goes Down
After 157 years of educating mostly Black students in Illinois, Lincoln College will close its doors for good on Friday.
The college made the announcement last month, citing financial troubles caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a ransomware attack in December.
Enrollment dropped during the pandemic and the administration had to make costly investments in technology and campus safety measures, according to a statement from the school.
A shrinking endowment put additional pressure on the college’s budget.
The ransomware attack, which the college has said originated from Iran, thwarted admissions activities and hindered access to all institutional data. Systems for recruitment, retention, and fundraising were completely inoperable at a time when the administration needed them most.
In March, the college paid the ransom, which it has said amounted to less than $100,000. But according to Lincoln’s statement, subsequent projections showed enrollment shortfalls so significant the college would need a transformational donation or partnership to make it beyond the present semester.
The college put out a request for $50 million in a last-ditch effort to save itself, but no one came forward to provide it.
A GoFundMe aiming to raise $20 million for the college only collected $2,452 as of Tuesday.
Students and Employees Give a Bittersweet Goodbye
“The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense,” David Gerlach, the college’s president, said in a statement.
Lincoln counts nearly 1,000 enrolled students, and those who did not graduate this spring will leave the institution without degrees.
Gerlach has said that 22 colleges have worked with Lincoln to accept the remaining students, including their credits, tuition prices, and residency requirements.
“I was shocked and saddened by that news because of me being a freshman, so now I have to find someplace for me to go,” one student told WMBD News after the closure was announced.
When a group of students confronted Gerlach at his office about the closure, he responded with an emotional speech.
“I have been fighting hard to save this place,” he said. “But resources are resources. We’ve done everything we possibly could.”
On April 30, alumni were invited back to the campus to revisit the highlights of their college years before the institution closed.
On Saturday, the college held its final graduation ceremony, where over 200 students accepted their diplomas and Quentin Brackenridge performed the Lincoln Alma Mater.
Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.